What Does Kyrsten Sinema Care About?

Work? Me? Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Shutterstock

Kyrsten Sinema could do something about the filibuster, but she won’t. The filibuster, the senator recently told reporters in Tucson, protects democracy. It fosters “comity” and exists “to help senators find bipartisanship and work together,” she said. Holding herself up as an example of bipartisanship in action, she added: “To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and x, I say, this is a false choice.” The Senate isn’t working, she conceded, but said the “way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.” Asked why she missed the vote to create a bipartisan January 6 commission, the senator said only that she had to attend to a “personal family matter.”

Sinema’s reticence isn’t unusual, and as The 19th recently reported, the trait extends to more than her personal life. When the senator curtsied as she voted against including a $15 minimum wage in the last stimulus bill, she had a reason. She’d brought a chocolate cake for Senate staffers to share, and was acknowledging them as they thanked her. That doesn’t explain her jaunty thumbs-down gesture, or absolve her for the vote itself. Rather, the incident seems quintessentially Sinema: conservative ideology, overlaid with a cultivated flippancy. If Sinema cares about anything at all, it can be difficult to tell.

Constituent service may not be a top concern, for example. “Outside of calling her general office number, I don’t know how to get ahold of this woman,” a Tucson-area labor leader told The 19th. The leader, Trish Muir of the Pima Area Labor Federation, said that the senator’s Tucson office appeared unoccupied. Her opposition to filibuster reform begs other questions. Sinema co-sponsored S.1, a comprehensive voting-rights bill that earned its designation as a marker of its perceived importance. Yet Sinema steadfastly clings to an obstacle in the bill’s path to passage: the filibuster. The answer she gave reporters in Tucson on Tuesday is nearly identical to comments she made in April, when she suggested that “the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

Sinema’s commitment to bipartisanship may be proof the senator possesses a coherent ideology after all. But her filibuster comments in Tucson are proof that ideology is based on an alternative history and a false set of facts. Far from being a way for the Senate to discover “comity,” the filibuster was used historically to block major civil-rights bills from passage. As a tool it was useful principally to the defenders of Jim Crow and their allies, not to dewy-eyed bipartisan dreamers. By co-sponsoring S.1, Sinema has thrown her support to the opposing side of history — in theory. If she’s really serious about voting rights, however, she’s trapped herself in an uncomfortable position. If she wants to keep the filibuster in place, she empowers the modern-day descendants of the old segregationists.

Perhaps she’d like to think such descendants do not exist, that today’s GOP is not the party of Jim Crow. The failure to create a January 6 commission — an endeavor she had backed, and had urged Republicans to support — ought to tell her something else. The GOP’s decision to rebrand the January 6 Capitol riot as a simple protest, marred by a handful of agitators, is as inevitable as it is disturbing. The party had been moving to the right before Donald Trump ran for office, and his presidency obviously accelerated its trajectory. Now it can hardly admit the rot in its heart. There will be no reckoning, no penance, no truth and reconciliation. Bipartisanship might still be possible, but only if a Democrat concedes significant ground to a party that opposes voting rights for liberals as a matter of course.

Sinema’s constituents may understand this, even if she doesn’t. Sixty-one percent of Arizonans polled by Data for Progress in March said they prioritize passing legislation over keeping the filibuster. That may help explain why Sinema’s favorability ratings have begun to drop. The same month, the Arizona Public Opinion Pulse poll found that 50 percent of Democratic voters held favorable views of the senator. By contrast, 79 percent of the party’s voters reported favorable views of Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Mark Kelly, who hasn’t endorsed ending the filibuster but hasn’t been vocally defending it either. Those polling results indicate something about the broad appeal of Sinema’s moderate approach, though on some issues, she and Kelly aren’t far apart. Neither senator has endorsed the PRO Act, for example, despite the urging of labor groups.

Beyond her record, however, Sinema’s failures include her public persona. In this, she is not alone. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a match for Sinema in terms of his commitment to the filibuster, and his statements in its defense are equally ahistorical and ill-considered. There’s no question, either, that women in power are held to different, inequitable standards of conduct. Yet for any senator the bar is necessarily high. That’s the bargain a politician strikes with the public. In exchange for power, a senator is accountable not only to her peers in office but to the press and to voters. Instead, the public gets Sinema wearing a “Fuck Off” ring. If the public opinion doesn’t matter to her, and if passing S.1 doesn’t matter either, then what does? What makes the filibuster so attractive to any Democrat right now? In lieu of answers, Sinema leaves onlookers to assume an ugly truth. She isn’t in office to pass legislation. She’s there for herself.

What Does Kyrsten Sinema Care About?